Andrew Place pharmacy Bundoora

What is the difference between a common cold and flu?


Andrew Place pharmacy


The common cold or acute viral rhinosinusitis is usually caused by a type of virus known as rhinovirus. It may also be cause by other viruses such as coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus and adenovirus.

What are the symptoms?

  • Onset of symptoms are gradual
  • Scratchy throat
  • Sneezing, runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Other symptoms, which may or may not be present are sore throat, headache and cough.


The flu or influenza is also a viral respiratory infection. It is caused by influenza type A and B viruses.

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms start abruptly after incubation period of 1 to 4 days
  • Chills
  • Rhinitis (runny nose)
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Body ache and pain
  • Headache
  • These symptoms can be severe and often lead to the person being unable to get out of bed.

How long do colds and flu usually last?

Symptoms of the common cold generally last between 4 and 9 days and in most cases resolve without treatment. Cough may persist for 2 to 3 weeks. While the flu symptoms can be variables. Acute symptoms usually resolve within 2 to 3 days while fever, cough, body ache and pain may persist for several days or even weeks.

Are the common colds and flu contagious?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes! Both the common colds and flu are easily transmitted from person to person via airborne droplets or direct contact by skin or hand contact.

What are the complications?

In most cases the common colds resolve without treatment. However, the common colds can lead to other respiratory tract infections such as acute bacterial rhino sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia. Complications are most likely to occur in people with weakened immune systems.

The potential complications of the flu include acute bronchitis, croup, otitis media, myocarditis, and encephalitis, as well as viral or bacterial pneumonia.

Is re-infection possible?

It is unlikely to be re-infected with the same virus as the human immune system should recognise the virus and eliminate it before it has the chance to multiply and cause infection. However, re-infection may be possible if the virus is different or it has been mutated.


If the colds and flu symptoms persist for longer than 10 days or if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • Chills/fever > 38.5 Celsius
  • Severe headache
  • Photophobia
  • Stiff neck
  • Ear ache
  • Cough lasting for more than 4 weeks
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Yellow, brown, green or blood-stained mucus
  • Muscle ache

Who are in the high-risk group for the influenza?

  • People with one or more chronic medical condition such as diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease
  • Immunosuppressed individuals
  • Pregnant women
  • Morbidly obese people
  • Residents of nursing homes
  • Elderly people
  • Infants and young children (less than 5 years)
  • Homeless people
  • Indigenous Australian

How do I avoid getting a cold/flu?

  • Good hygiene practice such as using disposable tissues, covering the mouth and nose during coughing, sneezing and regular hand washing. Although this practice can help reduce the spread of infection, it does not completely prevent transmission of the virus.
  • Using complementary medicines such as vitamin C, echinacea and zinc can help avoid getting the common cold. Herbal medicine such as Sinupret Forte is clinically proven for mild upper respiratory tract infections and sinus pain.
  • For those people in the high-risk group, using influenza vaccination may protect them from being infected with the influenza virus and to reduce the risk of complications from influenza.
  • Health care workers, staff of long-term care facilities, people providing essential service and travellers are recommended to have the influenza vaccination because they have a higher likelihood of transmitting the influenza infection to high-risk individuals.
  • Join the fight against antibiotic resistance:
Vu Phan

Author: Vu Phan

I am an Australian registered pharmacist. My qualifications are: - Bachelor of pharmacy - Consultant pharmacist (member of Australian Association of Consultant Pharmacist) - Diploma of Business management - NLP practitioner. I have been practicing as a pharmacist since 1992 and I have a special interest in helping people to live a healthy life through health awareness and appropriate management of their medicines and medical conditions.

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